The Boston Temple, Church of the Latter Day Saints in Belmont Massachusetts 18 Nov. 2011.
It is a number that may very well define the outcome of the 2012 presidential race. A June Gallup poll revealed that 18 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon to be president. Breaking this number down between Republicans and Democrats did not improve the picture. The same poll indicated that 10 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. Gallop also reported that these percentages have remained essentially unchanged since 1967 when the firm first began polling on the issue of Mormons in politics.
Eighteen percent. It could be the most important statistic about voters in 2012 and its meaning is not lost on either political party. Though both presidential campaigns have gone silent on religious issues for now, the cease-fire is unlikely to last. Team Obama is surely waiting in the tall grass to see if its opposition will again invoke religion as a weapon, summoning the specter of Jeremiah Wright and stirring questions about Obama’s brand of faith. If so, its operatives may counter by raising the specter of Mormon oddities. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign is trying to avoid what it likely has decided was a mistake in 2008: allowing Romney to speak too freely about his Mormonism. For both campaigns, the magnetic pull of 18 percent of the electorate will be too great to ignore. Both parties will be forced to–or will be eager to–contend with “the Mormon issue” before the 2012 presidential race concludes.
For many Americans, it is surprising this “issue” was not solved long ago. Mormons are the only American religious group to have been victim of an extermination order; nearly two centuries later the Latter-day Saints have risen not just to cultural acceptance but also to an astonishing level of national prominence. Their members head some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, number among this generation’s most popular authors and artists, and wield greater influence for their numbers–a mere 7 million in the U.S., perhaps 14 million worldwide–than nearly any other American faith.
As important, the earthly success of Mormons comes not despite their unique spiritual vision but as a result of it. Believing that this life is a proving ground for their ultimate eternal “exaltation,” the Saints devote themselves to family, education, work, investment, and community with the zeal of a people intent upon being found worthy by their Heavenly Father. They stress saving for troubled times, are so industrious they have been called “free market apostles” and they live out a kind of super-patriotism in which the United States and its Constitution are understood as divinely ordained. They also eschew alcohol, drugs, sex outside of marriage and even R-rated movies. In short, they are an all-American religion in every traditional sense and it has made them, in turn, an all-American success story.
Why, then, the suspicions of this 18 percent? They arise, in part, from the belief among some Christians that Mormonism is a cult, as evidenced by the public statements by pastors like Robert Jeffress. This is not meant in the Jim Jones sense of a subculture led by a dynamic leader who controls followers with deception and manipulation. Rather, it is meant in the sense of an organization built upon what is seen as a perversion of traditional doctrine. Mormons entered the world teaching that all prior Christianity was corrupt and an abomination to God. They then taught about a God who was once a man, about how man might one day achieve divinity, and of Jesus Christ. Enter a new scripture and teachings on polygamy. None of this won the Latter-day Saints acceptance by the guardians of the American religious mainstream, the Mormons’ more secular successes aside.
This leads to the charge that stings the average Saint most cruelly: Mormons are not Christians. Even their advocates–like Dr. Jan Shipps, leading non-Mormon historian of Mormonism–suggest that the Latter-day Saints ought to be considered the “fourth Abrahamic faith” after Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But few see the faith as inherently Christian in any traditional sense or believe that it grows organically from historic Judaism as mainstream Christianity does. In short, many if not most Americans view Mormonism as a bizarre brand of spirituality that somehow produces earthly success for its adherents.
This becomes the issue for that 18 percent. They can recognize the admirable achievements of a man like Mitt Romney but they hesitate to allow his peculiar religion to swirl about the White House or more profoundly influence the country. If they remain unconvinced, this alone could determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential race. And it is why, in the coming months, this stubborn Mormon issue will not be moved from our national stage.
Stephen Mansfield is a writer and speaker best known for his books on the role of religion in history, leadership, and modern culture. His most recent is “The Mormonizing of America.”